Civil Unions Law A Factor In Vermont Voting
By Nat Frothingham, Special to Stateline; Jake Brown, Special to Stateline
Ever since last April 26, when Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) signed afirst-in-the-nation civil unions bill into law, this usually serene and beautiful mountainstate has been racked by bitter feuding.
The new law, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, confers on gay and lesbian couples who choose to be joined in a civil union the samerights and benefits afforded to traditionally married couples. For example, the measureextends to gay and lesbian couples who enter into a civil union rights such as those relatingto hospital visitation, inheritance and taxes.
Proponents say the law represents a long-overdue civil rights advance and liken it togranting blacks the right to vote, while opponents claim Vermont's move is an officialsanctioning of what they say is a dangerous and morally corrupt lifestyle.
The fight over civil unions came to a head on election day when more Vermonters wentto the polls than in any other election in Vermont history. People were on the edge oftheir seats: the governorship and every seat in the Legislature was up for grabs.
In the end, anti-civil union sentiment affected the makeup of the state House of Representatives. Republicans now control it for the first time in more than a decade. But at the top of the ticket, the impact was less pronounced. Dean, unapologetic and resolute in his continued support for the law, beat Republican challenger Ruth Dwyer in a close race, and the Senate held a Democrat majority.
Post-election analyses tend to indicate that the civil unions movement, at leastfor now, survived its first challenge at the ballot box. It appears there will be no viablethreat to the new law in the Vermont legislature.
Anger and Betrayal
It was heavy going this election season.
As the civil unions law advanced through the legislature, many voters grew angry over what they believed was a betrayal by legislators and a miscarriage of representative government. Polls showed that a majority -- albeit a slim majority -- were opposed to civil unions, yet lawmakers passed it anyway, saying they were bound by a December 1999 Vermont Supreme Court decision.
In that case, the court held that it was unconstitutional not to extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples.
The message from the disaffected came through loud and clear to anyone driving through rural Vermont, and in some urban areas, too. Signs were nailed to trees and barns, and bumper stickers were slapped on vehicles that read, "Take Back Vermont," "Remember in November," and "Listen to the People."
Supporters answered back with their own slogans: "Vermont: Keep It Civil," "TakeVermont Forward," and "Share Vermont." As November 7 approached candidates werepulling out all the stops with phone calls, endorsements, mailings, radio and TV ads and marathon campaigning.
Civil Unions a Defining Issue on Campaign Trail
There appears to be general agreement that the new civil unions law was a key issue throughout the state and a dominant issue in certain rural towns and in those places where fundamentalist Christians and Roman Catholics form a large part of the electorate.
Newcomer Phil Scott, a Republican who won a Senate seat, said the issue was at the top of the electorate's agenda. Scott, who supports repealing the law said that as he wasknocking on doors during the campaign, the first question put to him invariably was, "Doyou support civil unions?" Depending on the voter's view, he said, "I either got a pat on the back or a very cold shoulder."
Richard Mallary, a long-time Vermont politician and Republican, was ousted from thge House because of his vote on the issue.
He said the civil unions issue was a major and determining factor in perhaps ten to twenty legislative races across the state. He noted that some people in his district voted for Dean and then turned around and sent a negative message to their local representative who had voted for the civil unions bill.
Statewide, it appears that Vermont voters, if they don't support the law outright, are willing to at least accept it and move on to other issues. Mallary said he thought the election had put the civil unions issue to rest, and predicted that nothing would happen in the new legislature to threaten the law. Rep. Walter Freed (R-Dorset), who opposed the law and was re-elected to the House, has said that any move to repeal the civil unions law would be doomed because of the Democrat-controlled Vermont Senate and because of the Dean veto threat.
However, an ardent civil unions opponent, Rep. Nancy Sheltra (R-Derby) who wasreturned to her House seat, disagreed. Sheltra said the Republican takeover of theVermont House was just the beginning of a Republican drive to organize the state andgain power. Sheltra said she will introduce one bill to nullify civil unions and another bill"to prohibit the homosexual agenda from being taught in the schools."